Two More Days Exploring Antwerp

Day 2 in Antwerp

IMG_1901One of the reasons Jona has a basement full of bicycles in various states of repair is that he and some friends are planning on starting a bike tour company in Antwerp. Luckily for us, this meant that he had a few bikes that we could borrow during our stay, and it also meant that a nice free bike tour of the city was in store for us. Our first major destination was a large park just outside the city, with a huge collection of permanent outdoor sculpture. Because it is a long walk from the historic center, few tourists make their way here. We certainly missed it in 2008.

IMG_1902Zoe met up with us there. There was hardly anyone else in the park, and we wandered around looking at all of the public art – everything from Rodin to Ai Wei Wei. The park continues to expand its collection each year, and we visited some of the newest additions. One of the coolest was a water spout (like a broken fire hydrant facing upwards) shooting about 30 feet straight up into the air, surrounded by scaffolding that you could walk up and around. It looked and felt like an MC Escher drawing, as it was hard to figure out who was above whom. The view down the water spout from the very top was surreal. Water billowing up and crashing down, seen from an unusual perspective.

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Ai Wei Wei “Bridge without a name” made of recycled wood from the park. The pieces that you stand on are essentially extrusions of small parts of the geographic outline of China.

After a good amount of time wandering around, Zoe said goodbye and we continued on our tour. We picked up some weird hamburgers and delicious French fries from a grumpy guy who clearly didn’t want to be working, and brought them to a park with a public swimming pool. This swimming pool wasn’t just any public pool. It was man-made, but it was placed in a natural setting and used plants and other aquatic life to filter the water instead of chlorine, salt or other chemicals. We took a refreshing dip after eating, then lounged a bit in the sun, listening to conversations in Dutch from all different types of people who had gathered at the popular hangout. [Nathan: listening to Dutch feels much more like listening to English than French. I like listening to French, but there was something nice and familiar about the rhythm and cadence of Dutch. Not that I speak it; it’s just closer to English].

After swimming, we ran a few errands on our way back, picking up some medicine for Nathan, who was still fighting a head cold, and getting a copy of the key made so that we could go off on our own. We got back, hung out our clothes, relaxed for a bit, and then went to the grocery store to get supplies. Nathan cooked a delicious meal of lentil and potato dal with coriander yogurt and guferati (green beans with mustard seeds and garlic). We ate with Jona and later his mom came over and we had another nice evening of conversation.

Day 3 in Antwerp

IMG_1918It was still very hot. We slept in, woke up and had a late breakfast, and got some tips from Jona on how to get around and down to the city center on a bike. Today was our day to go off on our own around the city. Getting around Antwerp by bicycle is quite easy in that there are plenty of bike lanes, appropriate traffic signals, and public awareness by drivers and pedestrians. The only tricky part is that as an old city, it is laid out radially which can make for some confusing slow curves and missed turns. We made it down to the city center with just a bit of quarreling between us. Some of that might have been due to the fact that we hadn’t had any coffee, which was very different from our normal routine for the past month. It was already lunch time though, so we opted for a Coke instead, to go along with one of our favorite foods in Antwerp: big bread sandwiches from this little shop in the mall. We are amazed this place still exists, with the same low prices and same sweet couple carefully crafting their sandwiches, not in a rush at all. Delicious. Just don’t go during the lunch time hustle. The guy who makes the food has the same slow pace and precision with each sandwich. Even our Belgian hosts knew about this sandwich shop that takes forever.

IMG_1919We ate outside, then walked around a bit to some of our favorite spots in the city center: the building with all of the flags, the fountain with the boy throwing the giant’s hand across the river, and the strange Gulliver-like statue (see the photo) down by the river near the castle. We then grabbed our bikes and went in search of the pedestrian tunnel that takes you across the river. It was very hard to find if you didn’t know exactly what to look for (we didn’t) so we wasted a lot of time going back and forth until we asked some other cyclists for help. They happened to be looking for the same thing… at least it wasn’t just us. Finally at the entrance, we walked our bicycles to the wooden escalator and headed down into a surprisingly cold tunnel. Yes, you read that correctly – you can take your bicycle down the escalator! At the bottom, we hopped back on and cycled to the other side, then rode the escalators up to find ourselves on the other side of the river.

IMG_3718The main reason we wanted to go to the other side of the river, besides experiencing the escalator, was to get a good view of the city, and take a nap in a park. It sounded easier than it actually was. A lot of what would have been nice riverside walkways were under construction. Areas that weren’t under construction were in the sun, and it was still very hot. Back and forth, back and forth. We finally settled down in a quiet, shady spot only to have a bunch of kids come by and start playing basketball. We got up and kept looking, eventually finding a better spot. We played gin rummy for a bit (one of our favorite time fillers on this trip) and then tried to nap but it was very hot and the tree we were taking shade under kept dropping bits of itself on us. Finally we gave up and headed back towards the city via the tunnel.

IMG_1924Our last stop for the day was a museum located on the north side of the city along the river. We didn’t go there for the museum itself; you can ride the escalators all the way up and get a great view of the city for free. Historic buildings on one side, the river on another, and an apocalyptic looking field of giant metal cranes and other machines stretching into the distance, all part of one of the largest seaports in Europe.

We made our way back towards Jona’s, keeping a close eye on the map. Before going home we wanted to stop by the grocery store and pick up a few bottles of delicious Belgian beer to replenish his supply. Remarkably, the grocery store closes at 8pm, and we were just too late to sneak in. Frustrated and tired, we tried to communicate about what to do next, but everything was getting lost in translation. Even though we were both speaking the same language, it didn’t feel like it. The frustrations had been building up all day. Missing a turn, nowhere to sit but in the sun, where is the escalator thing, where is somewhere nice to chillout, and on and on until the grocery store being closed was the last straw. Angry, we went back to the apartment and found Jona and his mother at the tail end of their dinner, which we shared with them along with some leftover dal. They both left shortly after dinner. We headed up to the roof with some beers and musical instruments, and talked out our frustration, anger and sadness. There might have been some tears and some cursing (there were). We worked it out though with God’s help, and felt ok about only having one big fight after over three weeks of being completely in each other’s space with very little alone time.

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Back downstairs, we packed and planned for the next morning’s travel to the conference. We would NOT be almost missing another train!

Walking Into an Impressionist Painting

IMG_1600We got up the earliest we had for the entire trip to head to Giverny, the home of Monet during the last few decades of his life. Many of his most famous paintings were painted there, notably the giant water lilies we’d seen at the l’Orangerie. Monet had a house and extensive gardens, both the water gardens and flower gardens. He designed, planted and maintained everything himself, and his landscaping style is rambling and natural, very unlike the gardens at Versailles or those seen elsewhere around Paris.

The train ride is a little less than an hour, and takes you to Vernon, which is little ways away from Giverny. It was recommended to us to rent bicycles to get from Vernon to Giverny. We did so, and had a lovely morning ride through the countryside of France. It felt great to be away from the crowds of people that are everywhere you go in Paris, and to breathe the fresh air. It was about a half hour bike ride, and we had to wait in line just a few minutes to begin our tour of Monet’s house and gardens.

IMG_1614We started in the gardens behind his house, and just enjoyed the natural beauty of the flowers. It truly is like being inside an impressionist painting when you’re there. Young people run around with wheelbarrows, tending the plants behind the scenes – what an amazing summer job to have. There are also some free range chickens of unusual breeds. When Monet lived here, he kept chickens for daily fresh eggs for the family.

IMG_1621Sitting on a bench just soaking in the beauty, we thought of both of our moms. Nathan’s mom is an artist and has always loved Monet, particularly his water lily paintings. She hasn’t been to see them or to see Giverny, but Nathan could see her really enjoying both and hopes she gets to go sometime with brushes and canvas.

Amy’s mom Rebecca is a landscape designer and Master Gardener. At Versailles, Amy kept on thinking about how inspired her mother was when she visited King Louis XIV’s gardens. It was on such a grand scale, and magnificent. But Giverny is magnificent too, but in a completely different way. It very much reminded us of all of the planning and hard work Rebecca puts in to creating a masterpiece garden. Giverny felt much like home to Amy.

IMG_1642We made our way to the water gardens, where the water lilies grow and weeping willows dip down into the streams and ponds. Many people were sketching and painting the scene, and we sat down to do the same. Well, Nathan drew while Amy took a nap. Of course the water garden is pretty crowded. The grass looked so beautiful, it looked like the perfect nap spot. But you weren’t allowed on the grass and so we had to fight for spots of benches. Amy had envisioned just being able to chill out where Monet had, it didn’t quite turn out that way. But it was still just beautiful.

IMG_3594We walked back to his house to visit the interior. Monet had an extensive collection of Japanese woodblock prints from Hiroshige and Hokusai; Amy particularly loves Hiroshige’s style and we both enjoyed seeing the collection. It’s also fun to be in the house and look out a window and see the gardens, thinking about what it would have been like to have that for your view each day.

We left Monet’s house and bought some sandwiches, finding a little spot of grass by the Impressionism Museum to picnic. Then we biked back to Vernon, and went down by the lake to take a nap. The Fat Tire Bike Tour group was just finishing up their lunch and headed to Giverny. Out on the lake we could see the remnants of a Norman stone bridge. In fact, Giverny and Vernon are in Normandy, and there are a lot of half timbered houses which are interesting and fun to see. We tried to take a nap but there were too many bugs and things falling from the tree whose shade we were under. So we got up and went back to the train station, returned the bikes, and caught the train back to Paris.

IMG_1673Sheila had invited us to a surprise birthday party for Austin, which we were happily able to make it to after getting back. A large group of their friends showed up at L’Assassin, a restaurant near their apartment. Austin and Sheila showed up, and Austin was surprised. We had good beer (Delerium Tremens on tap) and good food, and got to know some of their friends, including some Americans who were studying in Spain: Gus and Jen. Eventually we got tired and left the party heading back to crash after a long, fun day.

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Days 41-42: Fargo Part II

Sunday, July 19th to Monday, July 20th, 2009

Fargo Part II with James, Daniel, and Raj

After staying with Steve and Sarah, we took up temporary residence with three young guys in their apartment just a few miles north. James was our Couchsurfing contact and the one who invited us to stay with him, and his roommates Raj and Daniel were also around, though all three of them have somewhat crazy schedules with night shifts, and half night shifts, at a pizza parlor, gas station, and nursing home, respectively. James did a long bike tour after high school, just by himself, all around the US – thousands of miles. Daniel had just come back from a bike tour with his dad. All three of the guys were really generous with their space and made us feel very welcome. James cooked us two excellent meals, spaghetti with homemade sauce, and stir fry. What more could you ask for? Well, he also offered to take our stuff to the UPS store, as you can see in the pic below, and dropped us off at the Greyhound station on our last day.

I finished boxing Amy’s bike, after wheeling it to the bike shop for some help getting the pedals off (I had the right wrench, just not enough torque).

Saturday night we spent some time with Eric, a couchsurfer who was in Fargo from Austin, TX and his cousin Reed, who attends college in Fargo. This was our introduction to Fargo’s bar scene, which is quite extensive, and varied… we started out at the Old Broadway, with its screaming bachelorette parties and thumping bass, and moved to the American Legion, with its excellent rock band and much more subdued, older crowd. Night and day. We had a good time, and decided to go see Public Enemies on Sunday, which we did, and enjoyed, then went out to eat at a nice restaurant.

More movies Sunday night – a crazy documentaryish about a street thief that if you google it, its just a movie NOT documentary, followed by The Bank Job, a Jason Statham movie (always fun). Sleep in a bit Monday morning, walk downtown to buy our bus tickets (a nice clean Greyhound station!), get breakfast, back to the apartment to finish packing, drop by the UPS store, and make it to the bus station just before the rain!

Days 38-40: Fargo Part I

Thursday, July 16 – Saturday, July 18th, 2009

Fargo Part I with Stephen and Sarah

That last day of wind was enough for us. I threw the idea out there, and Amy came around to it, that Fargo might be a good place to stop biking and continue our journey via other means of transportation. So here it is, the end of the biking road for us, Fargo, North Dakota! We added up our mileage, and we biked over 1000 miles this summer!! We feel great about our accomplishment.

We really enjoyed our time with Stephen and Sarah, who hosted us at their lovely home for our first three nights in Fargo. We cooked food and ate together, ran errands together, and talked and laughed together. Sarah took us to her favorite coffee shop, Babs’, and across town to buy some camping supplies. They were very generous with their time and space, as their house was Couchsurfing central for awhile – us, the couple from Madison who greeted us when we first got there, and another Nathan, a friend of a friend who was in town to play some shows and promote his film company, and who also was very helpful with taking us around when we needed it.

Stephen and Sarah are cat people, like ourselves, and we had fun being in a house with cats again. Kim and Boots are Siamese cats, mother and daughter, and stay inside, while Harvey goes in and out and likes terrorizing baby bunnies and bringing them to the doorstep.

For the first few days we had our bikes, and biked around town, running some errands, sampling the local cafes, and getting our bearings in Fargo, which has some beautiful neighborhoods and a really cool downtown. We made many trips to Scheels, a local chain of stores with camping and sports type clothing and equipment, as we thought about what we needed for the rest of our trip. For instance, we realized that we each only had one non-bike-clothing outfit, and we were also a little short on warm clothing, and it was getting cold… down to the low 50s overnight.

We also spent a lot of time trying to figure out the best way to get our bikes and excess gear home, and get ourselves to Banff. We really wanted to ride a train, but the train doesn’t go to Banff, or even to Calgary; it goes to Edmonton, which would necessitate another long bus ride after getting off the train. Eventually we settled on Greyhound from Fargo to Winnipeg, plane from Winnipeg to Calgary, and shuttle or bus from Calgary to Banff.

Stephen took us around one day to run some errands, including looking for bike boxes to ship the bikes home. We could have paid one of the local bike shops to pack and ship our bikes, but I decided to do it myself for a few reasons… 1) I figured we had the time and could save some money, 2) we had some miscellaneous gear (e.g. racks) that I would have to take off anyway, and 3) I like learning how to do things.

So, as we explored Fargo and got to know our hosts, a lot of time was spent refactoring for the rest of our journey. I definitely felt some restlessness and withdrawal as we transitioned from the pattern of biking all day and camping in a different spot every night, to an extended stay in Fargo. Our patient hosts helped a lot, and there was stuff to do in the city, including a big street fair with kettle corn, arts and crafts, and some live performances.

Of course, packing the bikes ended up taking more time than I expected, so we only had one bike packed by the time we transitioned from Steve and Sarah’s house to our second CS host in Fargo. It also took awhile to figure out what we wanted to keep with us of other gear, and what we’d have to ship home or give away that might be an issue getting on the plane. Nate the musician/filmmaker helped us out Saturday evening, tossing all our stuff in the back of his truck and taking us to the apartment where we stayed in Fargo, Part II…